Chemistry Labs' Safety at Universities Questioned

Explosion at Texas Tech suggests dangers at other universities.

ByABC News
October 19, 2011, 12:54 AM

Oct. 23, 2011 — -- An explosion that severely burned a Texas Tech graduate student last year suggests safety problems plague college labs nationwide, a federal watchdog agency warns.

A report by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), an independent safety agency, examines the Jan. 7, 2010, detonation at Texas Tech University in Lubbock that cost the student, Preston Brown, three fingers and caused severe burns and eye damage. Brown had set out to produce 10 grams of an explosive compound — 100 times more than an informal lab limit — for research sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. "The report serves as a cautionary tale for universities across the country," CSB's Daniel Horowitz says.

There have been similar mishaps, and even deaths, at 120 school labs in the past decade, according to the report. Among them:

•A UCLA graduate student, Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, died of burns she suffered in a 2008 chemical fire.

•Four University of Missouri students were injured in a 2010 hydrogen explosion.

•Two University of Maryland students were burned last month in an acid fire.

"The report lays out a challenge to the academic community, " says Neal Langerman of Advanced Chemical Safety Inc. in San Diego. "We really need a 'safety culture' in university labs."

Lab accidents at schools and colleges happen 10 to 50 times more frequently than in the chemical industry, according to Jim Kaufman of the Laboratory Safety Institute.

The report documents failures at several levels, from the lab to school administration to the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security's $3.6 million project to study explosives detection at 12 universities came with no safety strings attached. Homeland Security shut down project labs for up to 10 months following the incident, and now requires safety procedures.

"Safety is just as important as scholarship," says Taylor Eighmy, Texas Tech research vice president. The university now makes investigators report all safety mishaps.

"We almost lost a graduate student, that's unacceptable," Eighmy says.

Homeland Security documents obtained by USA TODAY describe "resentment" among Texas Tech faculty over safety reprimands and personnel who "made fun of" others who wore lab coats.

"We're quite confident it's not only at Texas Tech that these problems exist," Horowitz says.